Thursday, 10 May 2012

Non-Normative Parenthood

This post contains major spoilers about Marumo no Okite (Marumo's Rules) and Kasefu no Mita (Mita the Housekeeper). If you don't want spoilers, watch the shows and then read this... and leave a comment, because it sucks not having people to discuss TV with in a language I can talk textual analysis in. Seriously, leave a comment...

I wrote before about Marumo no Okite and touched briefly on the status of Marumo as a single, working ‘adoptive’ parent. A lot about that situation is non-normative, but in some respects the father in Kasefu no Mita is even further outside the constrictive definition of fatherhood. He says during the course of the show that “natural feelings of fatherly love” never came to him. He feels nervous around his children and can only relax when he locks himself in the toilet. Although it is never said in these exact words, his fear stems largely from the dissonance between his image of “natural” and “good” parenting and his actual feelings. These two shows (Marumo no Okite and Kasefu no Mita) were in the top three rating dramas of 2011. Kasefu no Mita had record-breaking ratings with 40% of Japan tuning in to the season finale. While I’m not suggesting that dramas can tell us what real life is like (the third show in the top three was about a time travelling brain surgeon), I think the popularity of these two shows in the same year does indicate an interest in the theme of how family composition and behaviours are changing. As in many parts of the world, the traditional structure of families in Japan is becoming less and less common despite remaining the definition of ‘normal’. What is fascinating is the difference between these two single working fathers. Marumo has no interest in children and has parenthood thrust upon him suddenly when his friend dies, leaving orphaned twins. The friend’s plan had been for his brother to adopt the children, but at the funeral the brother reneges on his agreement and insists that he can only take one of the children. The sister unwillingly takes the other, and the pilot episode features a tearful scene of the children in their funeral clothes being ripped from one another. Long story short, Marumo can’t bear to see his friend’s wish for the children to stay together disregarded and temporarily takes the children back to his one room apartment. 

Throughout the course of the show Marumo grows more and more attached to the children and develops into a dedicated and loving parent. He never acquires legal custody of the children and throughout the show characters question the ability of someone to raise children with whom they have no biological link. The opening line of the show is “What is a family? Is it blood?” The implication of the program is no (a character at one point says “a husband and wife aren’t related, but they become a family”), despite Marumo’s decision to hand the children over to their mother when she appears on the scene. I’m extremely interested in adoption and fostering in Japan both intellectually and personally. I spend every Sunday volunteering at an orphanage and hope to adopt myself soon. Consequently I am happy to see a popular program question the primacy of genetics in family relationships (particularly after former Prime Minister Abe’s wife’s comments on thesubject). What is interesting about Marumo is the role the mother plays. Motherhood is subject to incredibly strong social pressures in Japan (and Australia, and America, and… you get the idea). The mother in Marumo seems to have suffered from post-natal depression that escalated as the twins got older. She felt overwhelmed and depressed. She and the twins’ father divorced and he told the children that their mother was dead. The entire family cut her off, and various characters say that they can’t forgive her. It appears that no one even contacts her when the father dies. Part of this is undoubtedly the general stigmatisation of mental illness, but her failure to comply with the image of ‘natural’ and ‘good’ motherhood is what makes her unforgivable. Marumo only forgives her and allows her access to the twins after finding an old letter from the twins’ father. In the letter he says that after becoming a single parent he realises how hard it is to care for twins and he understands her unhappiness. He wants her to come back to the family whenever she feels ready. I wondered several times during the show whether the family could have stayed intact if she had been able to ask for help without being labelled a bad mother (I take my TV very seriously). Although the mother is eventually redeemed, what we see in the show is someone with no biological connection bonding with children while their mother was unable to bond with them after their birth and their aunt and uncle are neglectful and callous. 

Likewise in Kasefu no Mita, the assumption that parenting comes naturally is challenged by the character of the reluctant father. Mita is a much darker and more adult drama than Marumo no Okite (which has a talking dog and a lot of comedic elements). The father in Mita also has no interest in children and is thrust into parenthood, but with a very different outcome to Marumo. The mother in Mita conceives while the couple were dating and she threatens suicide if the father insists on an abortion. He is forced into a shot gun marriage and unwanted parenthood (four times). Eventually he decides to divorce her and cut off contact with the children (he says he will “pay alimony appropriately”). His wife immediately commits suicide. The show begins when the father hires a housekeeper to relieve some of the domestic burden. The father’s lack of love for the children is a dominant theme, but the mother’s suicide is also discussed as her abandoning of the children. As with the mother in Marumo, she cannot fulfil the ideal of living for the sake of her children and finding emotional fulfilment in stay-at-home motherhood. There are also overtones of mental illness to the back-story, with her history of suicide threats and her use of the children to try and bind her husband to her emotionally. 

In both Marumo and Mita, men step in to care for children ‘abandoned’ by their mothers; in both shows the happy end comes from the men’s acceptance of their roles and not from the reinstatement of a two-parent family structure.
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  1. If I had to interpret a moment like that slap as an American viewer, I would say that it's a display of intimacy. People don't dare to hit strangers like they do to people close to them. I'm not comfortable equating violence with love, but I think the familiarity it implies is universal.

    1. Yes, exactly. It's uncomfortable but I understand that what they are trying to say is that it expresses a depth of emotion.


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